New Perspectives on Students as Customers: It’s Not Just About “The Customer Is Always Right”

Karen Rothstein, PhD
eLumen Vice President of Strategy and Research

Customers. More specifically…customers and the business of education. There I said it. Wait…don’t leave…Don’t click on that video of the autotuned cat just yet. Give me a chance.

I recently attended the American Council on Education (ACE) Conference in Philadelphia. While the video I took of the room where Alexander Hamilton attended the Constitutional Convention thrilled my son (thank you again Lin Manuel-Miranda), I was quite inspired after attending a session entitled “The New Student Is Taking Control—Are You Ready?” Jon Connolly, President, Sussex County Community College (NJ) Maura Devlin, Deputy Chief Learning Officer, The American Women’s College, Bay Path University (MA) and Scott Jaschik, Editor, Inside Higher Ed, had a lively discussion on the intersection of academics, business practices, and student success.

What exactly does it mean to apply business practices to student success? At one school, the due dates of assignments are used as part of a retention intervention. In all online classes, the first assignment is due the Thursday of the first week of classes. On Friday, the school reaches out to students who are enrolled in the online class but have not submitted the assignment to remind them that they can submit the assignment by Monday to stay enrolled in the class. This reminder engages the student, showing that the college cares that she missed her first assignment and will check in on her. If the student has not submitted the work by Monday, the student is dropped from the class and does not risk missing the deadline for drop or incurring fees for a class she did not intend to take. While some faculty may find the idea of a mandatory deadline for assignments an infringement on academic freedom, consider the task being asked of colleges…put in place policies and procedures that help students succeed. How do you balance the purview of faculty with a zero-cost policy change that has huge potential to help students?  

Another conversation on many community college campuses is how do you incentivize students to take 15 units rather than 12. One institutional obstacle is the cost of the additional units, since financial aid kicks in at 12 units and students may not be able to afford 15. So, what is the business practice solution?  Don’t charge students for the additional three units…that’s the policy of one panelist’s school. Of course, this is easier said than done, and a school must navigate the process, but the pay off in time saved for students and potential increases in attainment rates should be enough to make it a strategy worth exploring.  

As is my way, when it came time for questions my hand shot up, and I asked about the dreaded phrase “customer service” and why there is so much tension around that concept. The panel clarified the negativity around the idea of customer service in that it is often synonymous with “the customer is always right.”  Visions of disgruntled students inundating a faculty member’s or dean’s office flooded my brain as I imagined what would happen if a school adopted that type of customer service. To me, customer service is about doing your best to help an individual solve the problem at hand. Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t…but you try your hardest. It never occurred to me to think of customer service as the customer always being right. It reinforced the importance of sharing common definitions and understandings of concepts. I certainly would have ruffled fewer feathers in my time as an administrator if I made myself clearer.

In the end, the “C” word isn’t all bad. There are practices and policies schools can adopt and adapt from business that will help them best serve their students including streamlining processes and increasing integration of student services and academics. I’d be happy to share examples of how I’ve seen this approach work at schools and specifically how the eLumen platform can boost institutional “customer” support. And if colleges want to effect institutional change, they may want to look to other industries for inspiration. As we often say of our students…we don’t know what we don’t know. I believe both the autotuned cat and Hamilton would agree with me.

Email: karen@elumenconnect.com
LinkedIn: karen-rothstein-a5629160/
Facebook: karen.rothstein.7
Instagram: klrothstein/
Twitter: klrothstein  

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